Why teachers trust school leaders

Publication Date15 Mar 2013
AuthorVictoria Handford,Kenneth Leithwood
Why teachers trust school leaders
Victoria Handford and Kenneth Leithwood
Theory and Policy Studies, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education,
University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
Purpose – Trust among teachers in schools is significantly related to student achievement and trust
in school leaders is an important influence on such trust. The purp ose of this study is to identify
leadership practices which teachers interpret as signs of trustworthiness on the part of their
Design/methodology/approach – Evidence for the study was provided by post-observation
interviews with 24 randomly selected teachers in three “high trust” and three “low trust” schools
selected from a much larger sample of schools included in a national study. Coding of interview data
was guided by a framework of trust antecedents identified through a wide-ranging review of empirical
Findings – Results demonstrated that teacher trust in principals is most influenced by leadership
practices which teachers interpret as indicators of competence, consistency and reliability, openness,
respect and integrity.
Originality/value – These results, generally consistent with previous research, specify, in much
greater detail than has been reported to date, leadership trust-building practices.
Keywords Trust, Leadership, Education administration, Education, Teachers
Paper type Research paper
This study aimed to determine how important to teachers is leader trustworthiness in
carrying out their instructional work and to identify leadership characteristics and
more specific practices that are interpreted by teachers as indicators of such
trustworthiness. While conceptions of trust are many and contested, this study
adopted an integrated understanding of the concept proposed by Robinson (1996)
as follows:
[y] one’s expectations or beliefs about the likelihood that another’s future actions will be
beneficial, or at least not detrimental, to one’s interests [y] As a social construct, trust lies at
the heart of relationships and contracts, influencing each party’s behavior toward the other
[y] as a general positive attitude toward another social entity, trust acts as a guideline,
influencing one’s interpretation of social behaviors within a relationship (p. 576).
Trust is a critical concept for leaders to understand and develop because it serves as a
“lubricant” for most interactions in their organizations (Fukuyama, 1995; Luhmann,
1979), allowing less time to be spent on details, planning and attending to messages,
and more time to be spent on actions that contribute to organizational improvements.
Without trust, “the school is likely to experience the overheated friction of conflict as
well as a lack of progress toward its admirable goals” (Tschannen-Moran, 2004, p. xi).
So trust is an enabler of change.
Most available evidence indicates that trust is a core component of leadership. Trust
in leaders is significantly related to, for example, student achievement (Bryk and
Schneider, 2002), healthy work environments (Hoy et al., 1992), teacher morale (Black,
2001), effective leader-follower relationships (Podsakoff et al., 1990) and organizational
citizenship behaviors (Konovsky and Pugh, 1994; McAllister, 1995; Robinson, 1996),
although this evidence still leaves open the nature of such relationships (whether
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 9 April 2012
Revised 14 May 2012
29 July 2012
20 September 2012
10 October 2012
Accepted 16 October 2012
Journal of Educational
Vol. 51 No. 2, 2013
pp. 194-212
rEmeraldGroup Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/09578231311304706
causal or reciprocal, for example). Trust in leaders helps explain variation in
organizational members’ willingness to risk innovative practices, risk being the reason
trust matters at all. The interdependence of organizational change creates risk; an d
trust is essential when interdependence and risk are joined (Rousseau et al., 1998).
Change in organizational behavior involves a temporary shift from “optimal”
performance of an existing behavior to “sub-optimal” performance of a new behavior
(the well-documented “implementation dip”); realizing the superior potential of
a new practice over an existing practice typically results in initial efforts which are
clumsy or less than skillful. Trust in leaders increases the likelihood that a person
will temporarily risk unskillful performance. Trust, as this explanation implies, is
important because it reduces social complexity (Luhmann, 1979). “Schools are
fundamentally social institutions that depend daily on the quality of the interpersonal
relations with which they are imbued” (Goddard et al., 2009, p. 293). So collegial
and leader trust are social resources that make up much of a school’s capacity
(Cosner, 2009).
Framework and review of research
The framework for this study consisted of those characteristics and practices of
leaders which, when perceived by organizational members (teachers in this study),
result in attributions of trustworthiness. These characteristic s and practices were
identified through a systematic review of empirical research conducted in both school
and non-school contexts. The st udy also provided opportunitie s to discover
characteristics and practices in addition to those uncovered by the review, although
none were identified. Specifically, this study aimed to:
.estimate the importance of principals trustwor thiness for teachers in carrying
out their instructional work;
.identify which characteristics (categories or dimensions) and practices (specific
behaviors associated with each characteristic) are conside red most salient to
teachers when making attributions about their principals’ trustworthiness; and
.determine the extent to which teachers’ attributions of principals’
trustworthiness differ depending on the general “environment of trust”
evident in their schools (a “high trust” vs a “low trust” sc hool environment).
Table I identifies 13 characteristics giving rise to perceptions of leader trustworthiness
(left column) found in the 18 studies (noted across the top of the Table I). These 13
characteristics provided the framework for this study[1]. Among these 18 studies,
sample sizes ranged from four companies to 980 hospitals acrossfou r states. Data were
gathered from both private and public sector organizations; four were carried out in
school settings. Survey data were gathered in nine of the studies and this is the most
common type of instrument used in trust research. Each su rveyused its own questions
to determine trust conditions or attributes. Student ac hievement data and census data
were used in one study.Intervi ews, case studies, observations, behavioral tracking and
descriptive “lifting” from critical incident reports made up the remainder of the
qualitative, study-specific, data collection instruments. Check marks in the cell s of
Table I indicate which trust-building characteristics were identified in each study.
We use the term “characteristics” in reference to categories or broad domains of
leadership behaviors and the term “practices” to those specific behaviors giving rise to
attributions by teachers of each characteristic. Both the number of characteristics
Why teachers
trust school

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